New breakthrough could offer last-gasp reprieve for Northern White Rhino

Poaching has decimated the species, making it the most endangered in the world

New breakthrough could offer last-gasp reprieve for Northern White Rhino

Najin, one of only two female northern white rhinos left in the world, 02-07-2018. Image: Sunday Alamba/AP/Press Association Images

Scientists believe a new breakthrough could provide a last-gasp reprieve for the almost-extinct Northern White Rhino.

It was thought the species’ fate was sealed last March, with the death of the last male rhino, Sudan.

He made headlines a few months before his death, when conservationists signed him up to Tinder in a bid to fund his mating with a southern white rhino.

Continuous poaching has decimated the species, making it the most endangered in the world.

The last surviving members of the species – mother and daughter Najin and Fatu – live in Kenya's Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

Neither can bear offspring, leading many conservationists to warn their extinction was all but certain.

File photo of Sudan, the last male northern white rhino in the world, 18-04-2015. Image: Sun Ruibo/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

However, a new study published in the journal Nature yesterday, has handed new hope to the dying breed.

Researchers have created hybrid embryos containing DNA frozen sperm from dead northern white rhino males and the eggs of southern white females.

The southern white species is extremely similar, with a much healthier population count.

These ‘hybrid’ blastocytes – or early embryos – can be frozen and implanted into a surrogate to produce hybrid offspring.

The next step in the process will be to harvest eggs from Najin and Fatu, fertilize them with northern white rhino sperm and implant the resulting embryos in a southern white surrogate.

If successful, researchers hope to see the first baby northern white rhino born with three years.

Thomas Hildebrandt, head of reproduction management at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, admitted it will be a race against time.

"Taking into account 16 months (of) pregnancy, we have a little more than a year to have a successful implantation," he said.

"We are quite confident with the technology we have developed."

The offspring would lack the genetic diversity to sustain a healthy population in the wild, however scientists also have a plan to create artificial stem cells with the capacity to develop into eggs and sperm to completely reverse the extinction process.

However, some experts have warned that it may be too late.

Richard Kock, a conservationist at Britain's Royal Veterinary College, said: "I have no doubt that its purely scientific merit is laudable and it might have some application to endangered species conservation in the future, but I am afraid it is very much Nero fiddling after Rome is burning with respect to (northern) white rhino."

Mr Hildebrandt has insisted the effort is important.

"The northern white rhino didn't fail in evolution,” he said. “It failed because it's not bulletproof.”

"It was slaughtered by criminals who went for the horn because the horn costs more than gold."

He said that the disappearance of the northern white rhino, due to conflict and poaching, had left an ecological void but that scientists "have the tools in our hands to correct that."

Additional reporting from IRN ...